Elongated spasms

This week, AL Kennedy composes begging letters and officiates at a showbiz wedding

Well, I’m still alive. I think. A combination of stress and research now means that I’ve developed a wibbly eyelid and two different head ticks. I think the eyelid annoys only me, but the head ticks are a bit much for the general public. The main one involves my head shaking itself in a perfectly understandable ohpleaseno kind of motion. I’ve tried to adjust this into a more positive yeswhynotifIhaveto noddy thing – but this often simply causes the two to combine and then involve me lashing about in elongated spasms that no doubt translate as fallingdownawell fallingdownawell.

Meanwhile the first Pencilfest at Warwick – organised by student writers for student writers – went off rather well and was, I’d have to say, better organised than several long-established festivals I could name. I think their choice not to have a giant parrot mascot was probably a mistake, but otherwise all was delightful, the sun shone with enthusiasm and nobody died or spontaneously combusted during my event (comedy about writing) which is always a plus. My other comedy gigs ranged between – “This is grand and I wish to do it for the rest of my life,” and the rather more downbeat “You were mostly here last month when I did much of the same material, weren’t you? Please bear with me and I shall not be so slapdash again – it’s just that my brain can only produce so much Funny in a 4 week period, given that all I’ve been doing is working. I have been unforgivable and will now make a noise like a hoop and roll away.” I am packing the notebook with new Funny, even as I type this. Can’t be tedious for the lovely ladies and gentlemen.

It’s been drawn to my attention – by my bank statement – that, although I’m ricocheting off the UK’s corners and expending energy I’m borrowing from future generations, I’m not actually earning any money at the moment. Or not quite enough to balance my perfectly reasonable outgoings. Another week of this and I’ll have to stop waiting for something to turn up and try to manufacture something – despite attending two festivals next week and disappearing into London again for research purposes. I feel that if I don’t sleep or go to the toilet, spare time could be created for additional lucrative endeavours.

I should, of course, be tapping away at a new (and entirely unprofitable) short story – and may tonight – but the rest of the daylight hours may well be occupied in writing begging letters to people who could assist me with the next novel’s more factual and elusive bits. I am fantastically bad at asking for help, don’t seem to be able to do it in person at all and tend to feel that emotionally blackmailing busy people to do work for you for nothing is fairly inexcusable. Beginning a letter to a total stranger with “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I don’t deserve to live…” is perhaps not a good idea and so much rewriting ensues.

The high point of last weekend was, naturally, the marriage of Christine Cloughly (dance teacher, social butterfly and accountant) to Paul Sneddon (comic) which took place both on Saturday and Sunday. First, the conventional service – with the traditional interval for watching Dr Who – and then they joined many comics and other excellent people at The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh for a second, entirely unnecessary showbiz marriage at which I was proud to officiate in my capacity as ordained (by mail) minister. They’re two splendid people, have been happy together for ages and will, I hope, be even happier now.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.